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Assassination Puts Democracy in Peril

November 29, 1998|Martin Walker | Martin Walker, a contributing editor of Opinion, is European editor of Britain's the Guardian and an award-winning former Moscow correspondent

BRUSSELS — I know that dark doorway into the gloomy dom in St. Petersburg, with its smells of urine and cabbage, the wet filth sloshing underfoot at this time of year. "Hitchcock would have loved our sinister Russian doorways," Galina V. Starovoitova said with a grin, the last time I saw her in London.

That was where they shot her. Two shadowy figures lurking on the stairs, waiting for her to return the Friday before last. One was a woman, say Russian detectives, from the fingerprints on the abandoned Beretta handgun. The other was a man with an unusual gun, an Argan-2000 machine pistol, once popular with U.S. Special Forces and now manufactured under license in Serbia.

A burst of gunfire in the winter night, echoing in that gloomy hall, the stench of cordite and then fresh blood drenching out the usual smells. Starovoitova dead and her aide grievously wounded. Then the sound of the assassins running, the clatter as their guns were tossed aside in the Russian darkness.

In the ensuing silence, the only sound to be heard was a clock somewhere, ticking out the countdown of the Yeltsin era and of Russian democracy.

"I used to think Russia was going through her Weimar phase," Starovoitova once told me, referring to that ill-fated German democracy of the 1920s, which collapsed with the Great Depression and the coming of Adolf Hitler. "But Weimar had cabaret, it had creativity, it had Bauhaus and Thomas Mann. We have a disco Weimar: disco and the war in Chechnya."

Disco and death. Four years ago, the first journalist was assassinated, almost certainly by military men fearing Dmitri Kholodov's further exposures of illegal sales of military equipment. A suitcase bomb blew his legs off and he bled to death. Vladislav N. Listyev was far better known, the popular head of the ORT television network. His 1995 murder was said to be "related to his business activities."

In some ways, the most fearsome killing this year was the murder of the head of privatization in St. Petersburg, Mikhail Manevitch. He was shot, almost certainly by a trained military sniper, with a single bullet to the head, through the back window of his car. St. Petersburg is getting a reputation. Last week, Izvestia called it "the center of political terror in Russia." Dmitri Filippov, a powerful local businessman and banker, was gunned down, apparently for reluctance to make political contributions. Then came the shooting of one of the main collectors of such contributions, Mikhail Osherov, an aide to the speaker of the Duma, whom Starovoitova condemned as an unreformed communist crook.

When I first met Starovoitova, in those heady, hopeful days of perestroika, when Russia's democrats began to emerge, blinking cautiously in the light, she hardly spoke English. She taught herself, convinced that Russian democracy would need constant interaction with the West, and fearing the gigantic task of transforming the sclerotic Soviet system might never be achieved by Russians alone.

In at least one depressing way, Russia is back where it started, being feebly ruled from a Kremlin hospital ward. But a terrifying proportion of other things have changed for the worse. There is hunger now, and homelessness. The collapse of the state finances in August, with the stunning default on the debt, has torpedoed the one sign of hope: that the privatized economy was starting to work.

The state is bankrupt, and First Deputy Prime Minister Yuri D. Maslyukov said last week that after 10 years of declining production, Russia would probably soon become an oil importer. Nothing could be more serious. Russia lives by exporting energy, mainly to Western Europe. The energy sector accounts for more than half the value of the Moscow stock exchange and almost a fifth of the country's gross domestic product. The decline in the oil price, from $24 a barrel in January 1997, to $12 in July this year, triggered the debt default.

Above all, there is crime, extortion and contract killing. It began with extortion, preying on Russia's fledgling businessmen. Then it became contract murders and car bombs, first against rival Mafia gangs, then against bankers. Now the killings are political. Starovoitova was the sixth member of the Duma, the Russian Parliament, to be assassinated.

The political rhetoric of Russian democracy has always been ugly, thanks to rabid populists like Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, leader of the ridiculously named Liberal Democratic Party. This fall, it became worse, with naked anti-Semitism being advocated in the Duma. Accusations of fraud and corruption fly back and forth between Boris N. Yeltsin's supporters and the big businessmen and media magnates whose relentless propaganda in the last presidential election ensured his return to power.

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